How the humble crossword puzzle can help us disconnect
The crosswords can save us
Words— Marc Richardson
To say that our lives are dominated by our phones, and technology writ large, is tired. We know that. And, let’s be honest, we’ve come to grips with it. Unplugging entirely isn’t a realistic proposition anymore. Even the thought of a week-long detox is difficult to fathom; lest one be somewhere without reception, internet, or electricity. In which case, we don’t don’t really have a choice.
But, the problem isn’t that we’re connected 24/7—it’s what we do when we are connected. We’ve taken to some rather unproductive habits, like scrolling mindlessly through social media, even when we’re reading the same posts, or seeing the same pictures again and again and again. With the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, we instead choose to read 280-character tweets or stare at hundreds of meme varietals. I am a willing participant in this, of course. It’s fun. But it’s definitely not the best use of my time or the resource that is the internet.
It's also exhausting.
But, recently, I’ve come to find an unlikely bastion of calm.
The crossword puzzle represents something bigger: Taking a step back. A step back to things we used to do and a step back from our overly-stimulating digital lives.
One morning, while scrolling through my timeline, I came across a tweet asking for help. What was a six-letter slang term for a gun? C-A-N-N-O-N, I muttered to myself, counting out the letters. The person was stuck on a crossword puzzle and, sure enough, the replies offered up that “cannon” was, in fact, the correct response. That tweet convinced me to swap Twitter—talk about counter-productive content!—for the New York Times’ crossword app, which, to be honest, I hadn’t even downloaded yet. I hadn’t done a crossword in years. In fact, I don’t remember having ever actually completed a crossword puzzle before that fateful morning. I had always found them so damned frustrating.
That’s not to say that they’re suddenly less frustrating. On the contrary, they may seem even more frustrating now—after all, aren’t we supposed to get wiser with age? I racked my brain for longer than I care to admit while tackling that first crossword. I struggled to come up with answers that later proved to be fairly obvious. I confidently pencilled in words that turned out to be wholly incorrect. I thought about just deleting the app and giving up. But I couldn’t. It was addictive. I realized that the frustration served a purpose.
Since I started scouring the depths of my brain—and, I admit, the internet—for informative tidbits, morsels of information from a bygone era of studying for school, I’ve found the frustration to be deeply meditative, not just addictive.
Rather than spending every idle moment doing something passive—double-tapping on Instagram pictures is not active behaviour!—I’ve found myself devoting time to something that isn’t social media. That, alone, is worthwhile. And, if you can bring yourself to do it the old-fashioned way, with a print newspaper, a pen and a dictionary, that’s even better. But, good luck with that.
Of course, this isn’t just about crosswords. The crossword puzzle represents something bigger: Taking a step back. A step back to things we used to do and a step back from our overly-stimulating digital lives.
Our brains have become so enamoured with constant stimulation that it’s hard to go cold-turkey, which is what I was alluding to in opening. Crosswords are kind of like a placebo in that they keep our brains busy, but in a relatively productive way. After all, you’re learning all kinds of new things, while solving clues. It’s how watching Jeopardy! can be better than watching TMZ.
But, we’ve also become hyper-focused on perfection. Be it with a tweet or an Instagram post, we’ve become obsessed with projecting the very best of ourselves and we’ve created a world where we largely insulate ourselves from our own shortcomings. Crosswords are hard. No matter how good you are with words, or how easy the crossword is, you’ll second-guess yourself, scratch your head, or just flat-out get something wrong. It’s a refreshing reminder that we’re not infallible beings designed to get absolutely everything right on the first try. Failure is acceptable—in fact, it’s normal.
Crosswords may not save us on their own, but they are an allegory for the types of things we should be focusing on. Taking thirty minutes to try to solve a word puzzle is representative of taking the time to do things we enjoy. Like going to the market? Take a bit longer to do that instead of just going to the corner store. Like reading? Read “Game of Thrones” rather than binge watching it.
We live in a time where we are constantly striving to find more—well—time. We work too much and even when we’re not, we rarely spend our free time doing what pleases us. But, what if the things that please us are the things can help us right the path in a larger sense? What if going to the market instead of the grocery store means buying produce that is more environmentally-friendly? What if walking to work instead of sitting in traffic reduces our footprint? What if doing crosswords instead of being parked in front of a screen stimulates our brains and gives our eyes a much-needed break.
What if, by eschewing the things that we like doing, we’ve also been setting aside necessary exercises? Necessary in basic ways that we don’t realize, but also necessary for our very sanity.
So, no—doing a crossword won’t save the world. That much we can guarantee. But, what doing a crossword represents—taking time for yourself, for your brain, for your enjoyment, for your sanity—is exactly what we’re in dire need of.